Disclaimer: Worm and its universe aren't mine. They're wildbow's. Read it and send him money!
Note: This story has nothing to do with ack1308's Hope Comes to Brockton Bay. Nevertheless, you should read his stories if you want good Worm fanfic.
When the Simurgh attacked Buenos Aires, Wan Mei worked in the operations center as usual. She could fill in for any but the best of the Thinkers or any but the best of the precogs. Better, in a way, because she didn't share the weakness that almost all of them did. Since her first time, helping to coordinate the fight against Behemoth almost two years ago, everyone recognized how much she brought to the team.
"Hey, Perfect Girl! Get over here and make yourself useful."
Everyone recognized how much she brought to the team, but not everyone was happy about it. Thinkers were used to being the smartest person in the room. Put several Thinkers in a room and head-butting was inevitable. Put Wan Mei in a room with other thinkers and feelings of inferiority were almost inevitable.
Wan Mei ignored the sniping. She, too, knew her own value and knew how much better she made things. After the last time, she'd brought up an appropriate Thinker power to analyze the five Endbringer fights she'd participated in and the ten before that. Her participation reduced the casualties and damage by almost 8%, as much as Alexandria, almost as much as Legend, and more than Eidolon. She had nothing to be ashamed of, no reason to feel bad because of the jealousy of other Thinkers.
The work in the operations center went as it normally did: controlled chaos. Everyone worked as well as they could, enemies working alongside each other for the duration of the Endbringer truce.
"As well as they could" became a problem as the fight went on. The problem with Thinker powers and especially with precognition was that overuse of the power led to headaches. Crippling migraines. Beds in the dark "recuperation room" began to fill starting about an hour in, and the operations room thinned out.
This was where Wan Mei shone.
"Accord, I have a migraine starting. I need to swap out. I'll go over to the location precogs; they lost another in the past few minutes."
After getting the wood-masked man's acknowledgment, Wan Mei flexed a mental muscle, dropping her organization and planning power, feeling the incipient migraine drop with it. She brought up a clairvoyant power. It would take a few seconds to come up to full strength; it'd be there by the time she got her assignment from her new team lead.
Another Thinker dropped out a few minutes later. In her previous Endbringer fights, she was the only Thinker active the entire time from her arrival until the Endbringer's departure. If she weren't still a teenager she'd probably have been made a team leader, possibly even put in overall command of the operations center. That wasn't going to happen. Not even an Endbringer could get so-called adults to take orders from a thirteen-year-old girl.
No matter. It would have been nice to put "Directed a team of adult Thinkers" on her list, but Hope's self esteem did not rely on telling adults what to do, and Zap had just sent the message that the TPB had finished charging and he needed only a few more minutes before it was in position and ready to fire. If it worked as expected, they'd destroy the Simurgh permanently with one shot.
Two years before Buenos Aires, Hope Xu sat at her family's kitchen table, struggling through her homework. The homework for regular seventh-grade classes was bad enough, and worse if you'd been skipped up a grade, and more worse if your mother made you take as many classes as could be squeezed into the school day, and still more worse if your mother made you sign up for the debate club and get advanced math tutoring and take dance and gymnastics lessons. She was always behind, always being yelled at, always a disappointment.
Not like her older sister. Miss Perfect sailed through her homework, and the extra classes, and the piano lessons, and the dance lessons, and the tennis and cross country team practices, and even having to learn English when she and their parents first came to the US. Miss Perfect had done a bit of modeling and was now taking acting and singing lessons. She'd have a line of boys asking her out, except that Tiger Mom wouldn't allow either daughter to waste time on anything so frivolous as dating. Even so, Joy (real name, Huan Le) never lacked for companionship or for boys vying to do her favors.
Hope shied away from any feelings of jealousy. She loved her sister, she did. It was just hard to deal with the perfect example and their mother's constant comparisons. "When Huan Le was in seventh grade, she always did her homework as soon as she got home and she never wasted time watching television." "Only a 95? Huan Le always got 100 on every test." Hope loved her mother, but sometimes she had to remind herself of that.
Someone knocked on the apartment's door. Hope called, "I'll get it," glad for the distraction from her work.
As soon as she flipped the two deadbolts, someone hit the door, breaking the chain and knocking Hope back.
The obvious leader entered the Xus' apartment, accompanied by three muscle.
Hope wet herself in fear when one of them shoved her into a chair. Her family had managed to avoid ABB attention in the four months since they'd come to the East Coast. They were poor and they kept their heads down and just went to school or work.
But they were Chinese. That made them the Azn Bad Boys' business.
"Where's the old man? Where's your husband?" the boss shouted in Mandarin.
Hope's mother cowered against the refrigerator but managed to reply, "He's not home. Six o'clock!"
"We're waiting for him. He's not going to duck us again."
"Shan," the youngest muscleboy said with a nod towards Hope's sister.
Hope's very pretty, sixteen-year-old sister.
By the time Father came home, Hope knew she was worthless. Not worth the clothes she was wearing, not worth the air she breathed.
She hadn't been able to do anything to protect her sister. She wasn't allowed to get up and comfort her sister. She wasn't even allowed to help her to the bathroom to clean herself. She had to just sit right there and listen to Joy screaming and crying and then going silent.
The gangbangers didn't even want to rape Hope. The others laughed and said she was too homely when one of them suggested it. No figure. Just a stick. "Stay in that chair, little ugly boy."
Not that she wanted to be raped, not at eleven, not ever, but her sister was hurt so badly. Maybe she could have spared her a couple of times, spared her some hurt.
She couldn't even help her sister that way. She wasn't even good enough for rapists to rape.
Father didn't have the "tax" money the ABB demanded. They didn't want him to join the gang. He was too old and couldn't do anything they needed. They didn't want Mother. They didn't need a housekeeper.
The ABB didn't want Hope because she was useless.
The ABB would take Joy instead. They'd put her to work, paying the interest on Father's "back taxes".
Father jumped at the thugs to stop them. Clubbed down. Mother, too. Maybe dead. Not moving. One man smacked Hope back into her chair. Couldn't help.
Dragging Joy to the door. Naked and crying.
Hope couldn't do anything. Helpless. Hopeless.
Hope closed her eyes tight and saw only black, with flecks of light, just for a moment.
Hope looked at the situation with new eyes. She saw that her sister would be dead within two weeks, repeatedly beaten for not accepting her new life of prostitution.
Hope then "flexed" a new "muscle" and saw a new view, angles and speeds superimposed over the people in their living room. She could flick her mechanical pencil into one thug's eye and … and there was no way a short, skinny, eleven-year-old girl could beat four grown men.
Hope flexed again and again. She could not stop them by force. She did not foresee any help coming in time. She could think of only one way to save her sister. She flexed and got conscious control over her body, then spoke.
"Another cape, a hero, is out patrolling this area of the city. If you leave now with my sister, there is a 74.6 percent chance you will be dead within one hour."
"What did you say, ugly boy?"
"The odds are now 75.2 percent if you take her with you. The odds of your death are rising steadily. If you delay another three minutes and five seconds before leaving with her, there will be a 100 percent chance of you dying within fifty-four minutes." Hope was careful to keep her face neutral, her voice level, her heartbeat steady, her sweat under control.
All four of the gang members looked at Hope and one made a sign against witchcraft. Then the four switched to muttering among themselves in the mix of Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, and English that the gang members used. Hope spoke only two of those languages and their voices were too low for her to really hear them. She didn't need it. Without conscious thought she flexed and was able to make sense of the barest whispers of sound, add in minute gestures and expressions, and match that up against every smidgen of Japanese and Cantonese that she'd ever heard.
"If you will pardon the interruption," Hope announced in gang patois, "I feel it only fair to let you know that you now have no chance of surviving if you take my sister with you when you leave. I also managed to signal the patrolling vigilante – I was mistaken, before; he's a vigilante, not a hero, and he doesn't need much excuse to kill criminals. He will be here in less than two minutes. If you leave within eight seconds and use the stairs rather than the elevator, you have a 65.4 percent chance of missing him. If you take time to kill me, he will catch you and kill you all."
One of the muscleboys fumbled with the front door and escaped to the hall. That did it, and the rest followed in a rush.
Hope let out a shaky breath. She was almost lucky that she'd wet herself an hour ago. After she'd let go of the body control power and brought up the translation power, her bladder would have let loose while she was talking with the thugs and given away that she was bluffing.
There was no time to waste on the shakes. She pushed the front door shut, threw the deadbolts, and lifted the burglar bar into place before checking her parents. Hope didn't have any medical knowledge or power she could bring up, but she could feel that both of their heartbeats were steady. She hoped that meant they would be OK.
Joy had collapsed, almost catatonic. Hope wasn't strong enough to carry her to the bathroom, so she did the best she could, covering her sister with a robe.
While waiting for the police and ambulance to arrive after she called, Hope packed suitcases for everyone. She didn't need her powers to know it wasn't safe to stay here any longer. She had to move to a city with a Wards team. With any luck she could find one with no ABB presence so her family would go to the same city as she.
Wan Mei walked through the Minneapolis PRT building to the lab where she was helping Zap Man. Walked was too plain a word. She practically danced down the hallway. She'd spent hours practicing while running a Thinker power which told her the best way to move every muscle for maximum efficiency and aesthetic appeal. Hope would never be pretty or curvy, but Wan Mei's costume left her face and figure a mystery and her grace and body language and self-assurance had eyes following her. She loved it.
"Good morning, Zap! How are you doing this beautiful day?"
"Better now that you're here." Zap Man smiled under the domino mask he wore in the lab and held eye contact for several seconds, as he always did. Hope was fairly sure he was simply grateful for her help, not flirting. Fairly sure. She had learned years ago, not long after triggering, that bringing up a Thinker power for personal matters was more upsetting than it was worth.
The two made small talk for a few more minutes, building up Zap's self-confidence. That was what Wan Mei was here for. Oh, sure, she could handle tools and she was sometimes a help on the engineering side and her different forms of precognitive ability had been essential earlier in development. Still, it was her ability to inspire confidence and optimism that allowed a depressive Tinker with no self-confidence to work at his maximum ability. She didn't know, and never would ask, what his childhood had been like, to wreck a good looking, capable man this way, but most of the time he was barely functional. Zap was getting better, slowly, thanks to a staff psychologist. Until he was totally better, Wan Mei's presence made it possible for him to build beam weapons like nothing the world had ever seen.
Furthermore, because she was already on staff as an underage Ward with no professional certifications, she cost less than one of the PRT's psychologists. And she didn't ruin his Tinker ability the way mood-altering drugs did. These all were entries in Hope's List of Things That Make Me Awesome.
"What do you need me to do today? More calculating different aperture shapes?"
"No, I checked what you did Thursday night, yesterday, no, two days ago. It's good, real good. If you can just sit and keep me going while I tinker with the power regulator, pun intended, I think we'll be done by noon. This afternoon I'll see if I can talk to Kingmaker and arrange a time and place for some testing."
"I never thought about that. How do you test-fire a death ray?"
"After the smoke test – that's what they call it when you plug it in and turn on the power and see if anything starts smoking – the best test would be to go up about a mile and then shoot upward. I think it takes a month to send the notices to clear the airspace and they don't like to do it. We'll probably have to go out to the ocean or maybe Hudson's Bay, then shoot down into the water a mile away. There's the same problem with clearing out the boats, a little easier, but it's still a pain. That's why I have to arrange it with the boss.
"That's just for any old death ray. This one, this beauty of ours—"
"Yours, Zap. It's your invention, your work. All I did was hand you your tools. No one in the world but you could have made this."
"Fine, you'll only be listed as the junior inventor when our death ray is announced. Anyway, to fully test this baby we'll need tons of instrumentation and as many precogs as we can get. Including you, Wan Mei. But we have to get it built first, so let's get to it."
As requested, Wan Mei chatted with Zap Man as he worked. Nothing much, a word here, a word there, a few gestures, hand him a tool before he reached for it so his concentration wasn't interrupted. One of her Thinker powers let her sense someone's mood and steer it toward confidence and optimism and hope. She kept that power going all the time unless she needed something else. She could brighten people's days, make the world a better place, with just a few words. Knowing that helped her ego more than any number of admiring glances.
"What does your name mean, anyway?" Zap Man asked while he bent into shape the half-inch copper rods of the power conductors. "I keep meaning to ask you but keep forgetting. It sounds Chinese, maybe, because I think you use tones when you say your name, but that doesn't help me any. Chinese names usually mean something, right?"
"Wan Mei means Perfect Girl or maybe just Perfect. Literally it means Complete Beauty, Perfect Beauty."
"Oh, wow. Is that how you're able to help me with my self-confidence, because you're a complete, raging egomaniac and it just drips off you?"
Wan Mei laughed along with him. "Give me a break. I was eleven when I triggered and joined the Wards and needed a name."
Zap winced but didn't say anything. Trigger events were close to a taboo subject among capes, but it was plain from his expression that he realized hers must have been worse than most for her to trigger so young.
"I picked my name myself after the PRT suggested Pandora, from the Greek myth. Pandora means All Gifts in Greek, which is pretty good for my set of powers, but I'm Chinese. I chose the closest Chinese name to match that."
Pandora was the PRT's second suggestion. They had wanted to call her Hope because of how she could inspire hope just by talking for a few minutes and because the PR director thought such a hopeful name would help public confidence after the Minneapolis Protectorate had taken a really bad hit just a week before. That was unacceptable, of course. It would take a special kind of idiot to choose a cape name which was the same as her real name.
Eidolon Lite and Eidolette were the next suggestions, from some joker somewhere in the PRT or Protectorate. She hoped it was a joke, that it wasn't a serious suggestion. Joke or not, even at age eleven there was no way Hope was going to let them call her either of those. She picked a name herself out of self-defense.
"That's interesting. I wouldn't have guessed you were Chinese. You don't have any accent and your costume covers your entire body, so I can't see any features."
"I was born here, in the US, I mean. We speak Chinese, Mandarin, at home, though."
"Cool. So, I think we're almost done. The weapon is almost done, I mean."
"Great! Not that it's not great working with you, but all those late nights are getting to me, on top of school and everything else."
Wan Mei was telling only half the truth there. Her parents and the Protectorate had agreed that Hope would continue to live with her family, but would have a room in the PRT building in case she had to work late in the evening. It was such a pity that she'd had to work with Zap well past midnight three or four nights every week for the past several months. A simple bed, a change of clothes, and a shared shower were good enough for her, and if she didn't have her one big, cuddly stuffed animal here, well, she also didn't have her mother here.
And, with her mother not here, Hope was able to get her homework done in a fraction of the time. She was a Thinker, with quite possibly the most powerful set of Thinker powers of anyone on Earth, but at home she had to read and memorize and write her papers and practice piano the hard way, without powers. Mother said it was cheating to use her powers and that if Hope didn't put the time and effort into getting the work done then it didn't count and she was just lazy and Huan Le always managed to get her homework done on time, without any cheating powers. Joy hadn't been working on a job twenty-something hours per week when she was twelve and thirteen, either, but apparently that didn't count.
"Uh, sorry about keeping you up late," Zap's voice pulled Hope away from her lingering resentment. "When I get on a roll, you know…"
"It's not a problem. I do know, and I know that you're doing something important. Anything I can do to help, I'll do."
He smiled again. "Thanks. You are a big help. Anyway, we have maybe a half hour of work and then the final check before we take it out for the smoke test. We still need to come up with a good name for it, too." Zap Man coughed and fidgeted a moment. "It's about lunchtime and I'm getting hungry. Would you like to have lunch together and help think of names? Maybe go out into the city instead of down to the cafeteria?"
"You mean… like a date?"
"Yah. Only if you want to. I'm not trying to push you. And only if you don't already have a boyfriend."
"I think I'd like to, and I don't have a boyfriend, but my mom doesn't let me date."
"What? Your mom… How old are you?"
"Fourteen. Almost. I'll be fourteen in about a month."
"Oh! I'm sorry, I had no idea. I'm not a creeper, really. I thought you were seventeen. You seem older, just kind of on the short side, but I knew you can't be eighteen yet because you're still in the Wards, ah, and I'm nineteen, just turned nineteen."
"It's no problem, and I'm flattered, really. But, you know, mom…"
Hope was flattered, in her non-cape persona. Zap was too old for her, but he was the first guy who'd ever asked her on a date and he was a good guy and he said she was so mature that he thought she was an adult. Another entry for her List of Awesome!
"Yah, sorry anyway," Zap repeated, looking down.
Wan Mei's power nudged her. "No apologies needed. I said I was flattered. Tell you what, let's pencil something in for when I'm allowed to date. If I know my mom, that'll be when I'm about thirty." And who knew? He'd be twenty-three when Hope was eighteen and moved away from home, and maybe twenty-three wasn't too much older.
Zap Man was smiling again. "Ha. So, lunch in the cafeteria? Not a date, just working on names."
Wan Mei and Zap Man ate lunch first before they got down to work. It wasn't a date, but Hope couldn't help but dawdle and chat and flirt a bit before they began brainstorming names for the death ray. They'd only gotten as far as Temporal Particle Beam, a clumsy name with a worse acronym, when their non-date working lunch was interrupted by the Endbringer alarm. The Simurgh has been sighted heading west over Uruguay. Volunteers are requested to assemble on the roof for transport to Buenos Aires in thirty-six minutes.
Wan Mei slapped her companion on the shoulder as she stood. "You go up and finish working. I'll find someone in charge and tell them we'll be there, then I'll meet you in the lab in just a few minutes. Go on, Zap, you can do it, the Simurgh is exactly what you built it for. I'm sure you can do it."
After telling Red Snapper that she and Zap Man would be there with a weapon the size of an upright piano – the local Protectorate's second-in-command knew that Zap had been told to go ahead with it but hadn't realized that it was almost ready – Wan Mei sprinted back to the lab to make sure her partner stayed optimistic and not in a funk so he couldn't work.
"I'm back! Did you miss me?"
"A little. I know you said I could do it, and that helped, but it's not as good as you being here. I was worried I wasn't up to it."
"You're a good man, Zap. You can do it. Now gimme that torque wrench. I can finish tightening down those clamps while you do whatever's next."
The two, and their weapon, made it to the roof barely in time to catch a ride with the teleporter. The veteran of five Endbringer fights, Wan Mei knew that there was a little flexibility in the schedules. Not much. Too many teams were coming from too many locations to allow much deviation. As it was, Zap had to roll the TPB along the corridors while Wan Mei rode on top, frantically making the last connections and then tightening down the cover panels.
As soon as the sparkles cleared from their eyes from the trip to the assembly point near Buenos Aires, Wan Mei resumed their interrupted conversation. "How are we going to test it? We haven't even powered it up."
"I'm not worried. With you helping me, I'm sure everything's right. You're just what I needed, Wan Mei, to make me confident enough to get it right the first time. I just need to start charging the capacitors. Go on, I'll be fine, just need between an hour and a couple of hours to charge, depending on what power supply I can hook into. Then a few minutes to get in position and aim. Go on, they need you to help control everything, right?"
"Right. It's not like I can do anything against the Simurgh myself." Or against even the run-of-the-mill villain. Wan Mei wasn't a Brute, and her Thinker powers were almost useless in a fight. "And the operations people can't get along without me." Hope smiled and give Zap a quick hug. First time for everything, but she'd never worked with one person so intensively for so long, nor someone so in need of encouragement. Nor with anyone who'd ever asked her out, but that was just her, not her power telling her how to keep Zap Man going.
Up in the so-called control center, everything was the same as usual: barely-controlled chaos. All of the team leads knew Wan Mei and what she could do and how flexible her powers made her, and they slotted her in wherever she could do the most good.
Busy was good. Worry and hope, two sides of the same anticipatory coin, were driving Wan Mei up the wall. On the one hand, Zap's death ray might destroy the Simurgh for good. On the other… that was the problem. Any number of things could go wrong, from it not working and just making her angry, to the TPB blowing up as soon as Zap pulled the trigger, to the tinker Endbringer stealing it. Had Zap Man built in a self-destruct?
Wan Mei wished she had brought up a precog power back before they came to Argentina. She'd been too busy to think of it, right up to a few seconds before the teleport, but that was no excuse for a Thinker.
Not that it would have done much good, trying to look into the future to see if Zap's weapon was safe to fire. Precognition didn't work well around the Simurgh. She was a powerful precog herself and somehow screwed up human precogs. That was why Zap had built a Temporal Particle Beam. It somehow moved the beam through time, or adjusted the beam to changes in time, or adjusted time to the beam. Wan Mei had never managed to understand how it was supposed to work, and applying any of her Thinker powers to the question did nothing but give her a splitting headache within seconds.
At least she'd been able to use some of her powers to help. She'd repeatedly flexed and brought up a variety of precognitive powers back in the lab, hours a day over a month or so. Zap had measured something with instruments she never understood, then done some experiments, then set up other devices to do something to her powers so that she couldn't dodge a foam ball unless she used her eyes.
If the death ray worked as hoped on the Simurgh, the monster wouldn't be able to dodge or block the beam. Or the beam would have already moved to where the Simurgh dodged. Whatever. Wan Mei couldn't risk a headache now, in the middle of the fight, by thinking about it too deeply.
If the weapon worked as hoped, it would cut the Endbringer in half.
If it worked as hoped, it wouldn't blow up the moment it was fired.
Hope was too busy to worry. They needed her. They needed her in several places at once, filling in for other Thinkers as they burned out.
The fight went on. Operational control went on. The Minnesota group had been there a bit over two hours. A third of the Thinkers in the control center had burned out. Replacements were coming in. Not enough, not fast enough. Wan Mei was needed more than ever to fill in holes.
Just a few more minutes, she hoped, then either the fight would be over or else… well, or else the situation wouldn't be any worse than it was without the TPB.
When Zap's signal came, Wan Mei couldn't help but pause in what she was doing, looking up through the plate-glass window to where the Simurgh was hovering over a hastily-abandoned office building. Without warning, a wavering, flickering, half-there line of distortion lanced up—
—and sliced off all of the Simurgh's wings on one side.
Half a second later, before anyone could draw breath to cheer, an actinic flash on the ground outshone the sun for an instant.
The robotic voice of the wristbands confirmed Hope's fears. … deceased. Zap Man, deceased. Red Snapper, deceased. Power… for a dozen names.
Hope allowed herself ten seconds of tears, grieving for her friend, then the hero flexed and brought up her "optimism" power and moved from team to team, from Thinker to Thinker, reassuring the others that this was not a major setback and that they could continue as before and drive off the Simurgh through their usual methods.
There was no one to reassure Hope, but Wan Mei had a duty. If she lived through today, Hope could cry tomorrow.
"… I would like you to make a list of things that make you feel good about yourself, things that make you special."
Wan Mei, in costume, sat with one of the PRT's psychologists. The same one who'd been working with Zap Man, in fact. Mama Bear, the adult cape in charge of the Wards, had suggested it because of Wan Mei's obvious depression and loss of self-confidence. The girl hadn't seen the point, but Mama Bear ordered her to go, on the basis of her poor job performance.
That led to this day. After the first of their thrice-a-week sessions, the shrink had started given Wan Mei "homework".
"I've been keeping a list for a couple of years now. Do you want to read it or was the point just to have me make the list?" Wan Mei could have used a power to learn what the woman really had on her mind, but that could defeat the point of the therapy. They were trying to help Hope, the teenage girl who'd lived through shattering events and lost friends, not Wan Mei, the perfect girl who could bring up any number of powers to tell her how to get through the day.
On request, the young hero handed over her List of Things That Make Me Awesome. She'd taken to keeping it with her, in costume and out, so she could read it when she needed a pick-me-up. It wasn't quite as bad as it was a month ago, but she still needed to flip through the pages once or twice per day. The list was private, but it didn't contain anything too revealing.
"In one sense this is a very impressive list," the psychologist said after reading for a minute. "You certainly are an impressive young lady, both as a parahuman and as a young woman dealing with the usual adolescent issues.
"In another sense, I find this list rather worrisome. It confirms the impression I'd already formed. Not to tiptoe around the issue, you appear to labor under a severe lack of self-confidence. I had thought it was because of the Simurgh fight last month but, judging by the age of these papers, this goes back much further. Do you think I'm way off base? On the right track?"
Hope couldn't bring herself to agree, but she couldn't disagree, either.
"I've seen your evaluations as a Ward and as a student – with identifying details concealed, as you requested. Again, your performance is excellent, very impressive. You have any number of reasons to be very proud of yourself and nothing I've seen to make you doubt yourself. Is there anything about your trigger event you'd be willing to share, something that might explain it?" When Wan Mei shook her head, she suggested, "Perhaps it would be easier to start a bit younger. Did you have a happy childhood?"
Hope hung her head, then drew a deep breath. Courage. The shrink was trying to help and after a few weeks of talking in generalities without really opening up, Hope realized that she was depressed and almost useless. The shrink couldn't help and Hope wouldn't get better, Wan Mei wouldn't get better, if she didn't give her something to work with.
"My parents and sister were immigrants. I was born here…"
Hope spoke for half an hour before she realized she'd been speaking non-stop, faster and faster, unloading about her childhood and Miss Perfect and her mother and her trigger event. She'd even had to take off her mask, for the first time ever in front of another person, so she could blow her nose and wipe her eyes about a hundred times.
"It wasn't your fault," the shrink said. "It's not up to a preteen girl to protect her family from a gang."
"I did protect them. After I triggered, I was able to scare them away. I didn't trigger soon enough to protect my sister. It took a year for her to get over it. A little bit over it. My parents never forgave me for taking too long."
"I sympathize, I do. Now ask yourself this, Wan Mei: even if you didn't trigger soon enough to prevent everything that happened to your family, what would have happened if you hadn't triggered at all? Didn't you still save the day? Wouldn't things have been worse, much worse, without you?"
"As for your parents, are you sure they didn't forgive you? Is it possible that the problem is, you haven't been able to forgive yourself?"
Hope shook her head. Her mother hadn't forgiven her. She'd said so. More than once. It was still too painful to mention, even to think about. Hope changed the subject.
"Even after I triggered and joined the Wards I'm not sure I'm doing any good. I might have caused Zap Man's death ray to blow up. That did more harm than all the good I've done put together. I think I killed him and a dozen other people."
On one level Wan Mei knew this wasn't true. She'd saved hundreds of lives, probably more, by helping to end Endbringer attacks a bit earlier than they would be without her. It didn't matter. Those were abstract lives. Last month she might have killed a dozen people herself, people she knew.
"What reason do you have to think that?"
"I'm the one who finished putting it together. We'd wasted too much time at lunch, just before the alert. I was goofing around with Zap. Flirting. If we'd just had a quick lunch and then gotten back to work he could have finished assembling the particle beam before the alert. But there was no time because we'd taken a break, and then I had to rush to put it together and I don't know if I did it right."
"It was not your fault. You're a Thinker, Wan Mei, and obviously an intelligent girl besides that. Use your powers on the problem, if you can, or simply use your brain. Unless you controlled the Simurgh or the timing of the transport to Buenos Aires, it wasn't your fault. You didn't know an alert was coming."
When the girl didn't respond, the psychologist continued, "You've been working long hours for years. Moreover, you're very young. I hadn't realized it until you took your mask off, but you're barely a teenager, and you've been working very hard as a Ward for two years. For the past several months you've been working harder than one would expect of an adult. You're certainly entitled to relax, when you find a few minutes with no obvious crises looming. You risk burning out if you don't take a break, and you may be right at that point."
Wan Mei nodded. She'd already been wondering how much fatigue might have led to her mistakes. "There's something else. I can make people feel more hopeful and more confident. Is that in any of the paperwork you've seen? That's why I was working with Zap these past three months. Then, down in Buenos Aires, almost the last thing Zap said to me was that he wasn't worried about me putting it together wrong or anything else being wrong. He was sure it would work because I was working with him. And I think he was right. It's not that everything was right because of me, it's that he was sure everything was right because of me. I'll bet he didn't check everything while charging it up. I'd made him so confident, he wouldn't need to."
The therapy session had to end at that point. Wan Mei was cutting into another cape's scheduled time. She was just as glad to leave. She already had plenty to think about, plenty of decisions to make about her life as a cape. Her life outside of her costume, too.
Wan Mei walked through the hallways of the Minneapolis PRT building. If her step wasn't as perky as it was before, neither was it as plodding as it had been recently.
"Good morning, Green. How are you doing today?"
Wan Mei was once again working extensively with a Tinker, helping to build a combat robot assembly device. She'd hesitated over taking the assignment, but the fact remained that she was good at it. Kingmaker had told her flat out, "Listen, Wan Mei, we need Green Machine's machines. I know you're doubting yourself but I trust you. More than that, we need you. Green Machine needs help if he's going to get it done any time this year, but you know how Tinkers are. He won't let another Tinker anywhere near until it's done and he can brag. You're different. You're not a Tinker but as an assistant you're almost as good. Better, even, because you're not obsessive and territorial like almost all of them are. You're too valuable to be wasted on anything else."
And so Wan Mei bent to the organization's needs. Besides helping to get the assembler finished, it was good therapy for her doubts. She wondered if the shrink had suggested it to Kingmaker.
"Morning, Mei-Mei. You're not here, right?"
That was different than when she was working with Zap Man. Mama Bear had ordered her to limit her work time to fifteen hours per week. That was ridiculous. There was no way she'd get anything done in just a couple hours per day. Thus the nudge-and-wink with Green to limit her official work time.
Another thing was different: Wan Mei was not using her "optimism" power. She agreed with the bosses on that one. She wouldn't touch it until she'd finished her psychology studies, and then she'd use it with supervised training and monitoring. If she could learn to reliably spot the signs of an optimism "high" which was affecting judgment, it would be safe to use the power again. Not until then.
The young hero was not going to get anyone else killed. She was going to make up for her mistakes.
The post-mortem of the Simurgh fight and the Temporal Particle Beam failure showed that Zap had made a mistake in the frenzied last few minutes before the transport to Buenos Aires. Hope hadn't wanted to believe it. It was easier to blame herself than to speak ill of the dead, but they'd had her bring up a power to give herself perfect memory and then a team of the best Tinkers had examined her sketches. There was no doubt about it. Zap Man had made a mistake and then not checked his work when he had the chance. He didn't need to. He was sure it was right.
He had been killed by Hope, and that was true no matter which meaning you used.
Author's Note: Yes, kind of a downer ending. It's Worm. What did you expect? Most of the capes who had trigger events are mentally damaged.